Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

Summary: Tonight, Microsoft officially released Internet Explorer 9 to the public. What's changed since the Release Candidate? And can IE 9 overcome its Achilles heel?

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Microsoft has officially released Internet Explorer 9 to the public.

Although only five weeks have passed between the Release Candidate and the final version available for download now, that time was well spent. Several bugs I had logged in the RC are fixed, and performance is noticeably snappier. And, somewhat surprisingly, two features that weren’t available in the RC made it into the final release:

  • IE 9 now supports the Do Not Track header that Mozilla proposed earlier this year. The feature is in addition to the much more active Tracking Protection feature that blocks third-party tracking sites. According to Rob Mauceri, Principal Group Program Manager for Internet Explorer, Do Not Track is implemented as a header and as part of the Document Object Model (DOM) API. As a result, says Mauceri, “sites can detect a user’s intention not to be tracked.”
  • The Tracking Protection feature now covers ActiveX controls—the most popular of which is Adobe Flash. In the final version of Internet Explorer 9,  requests from ActiveX controls go through the same Tracking Protection Lists that govern websites. If you’ve blocked a third-party site, it will be blocked for access in Flash and other ActiveX controls as well. I'll need to test this feature to see if it has an impact on local shared objects--aka "Flash cookies."

If you’ve already downloaded and installed the IE 9 Release Candidate you probably won’t notice any changes. The core of the IE 9 interface is the same as I described last month in my in-depth look at the Release Candidate.

In a follow-up post, I’ll look at how IE 9 compares with its archrivals, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. Here’s the executive summary, broken down into four key categories.

Performance: “screamingly faster”

Last week, my colleague Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols benchmarked the performance of Google’s just-released Chrome 10 and called it “screamingly fast.” That conclusion was based on a set of benchmarks that mistakenly compared the unoptimized 64-bit version of Internet Explorer 9 to the 32-bit version of Chrome. When he re-ran the tests, IE 9 came out ahead. I guess that makes the new Internet Explorer “screamingly faster” and, at least for now, dethrones Chrome as the speed king.

My experience with the final release of IE 9 supports that conclusion. In tests on two high-end desktop systems using the SunSpider benchmark, IE 9 came out on top of the just-released Google Chrome 10 by a minimum of 11%. The release candidate of Firefox 4 actually outperformed Chrome ontwo of three systems but was still 12.6% slower than IE 9. On a notebook using an ultra-low-voltage Core 2 Duo processor, the difference was even more profound: Firefox 4 and Chrome 10 needed 24% and 29% more time to finish the benchmark than IE 9.

The most important measure of performance, of course, is the real world. So I set up a test bed with browsers arranged side by side on PCs with similar configurations and found the differences between the three leading browsers to be minimal in everyday use. On graphically intensive pages, IE 9 was often able to finish loading a page faster than Chrome. The difference was especially noticeable on systems using older GPUs. The only significant differences I found were on sites that use cutting-edge HTML5 features, where the difference came down to differences in how each browser handles an emerging standard.

Page 2: IE 9’s Achilles Heel  -->

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User Experience

Apparently, the designers of modern web browsers share a philosophy with supermodels: You simply can’t be too thin.

IE 9 follows that dictate to a fault, combining  the address bar and browser tabs into a single row that is significantly more compact than its rivals. Here, from left to right, are IE 9 in its standard one-row configuration followed by Chrome 10, Firefox 4 RC, and IE 9 with tabs on a second row.

When maximized, both Google Chrome and Firefox 4 RC shave the pixel count by eliminating the title bar—an odd-looking, decidedly nonstandard design choice that breaks one of the key Aero Snap window management capabilities in Windows 7. When there’s no title bar, you can’t drag a maximized browser back to a window but instead have to aim for the tiny Restore button in the top right corner.

The big design innovation in IE 9 is a feature called Pinned Sites, which lets you save a web shortcut on the taskbar and open that site as if it were a Windows app. Google Chrome has a similar feature called App Shortcuts. On Windows 7, the feature is useful, especially now that Pinned Sites can open multiple shortcuts in a pinned browser window. There’s no doubt that this feature is interesting, but it’s difficult to discover and I’m not sure the average Windows user will see the benefit. Something tells me that it will be much more useful in Windows 8.

Microsoft told me last week that it had signed up a slew of new partners that were planning to add Pinned Site support, including Groupon. In addition, some sites will reportedly offer free premium services for anyone who pins respective sites to the taskbar—Hulu promises a free month of its Hulu Plus service, and Pandora will reportedly have a premium offer as well.

Security and Privacy

Last week’s Pwn2Own test results provided at least one data point to suggest that Internet Explorer 9 is more secure than its predecessor. IE 8 fell, but only to an attacker who chained together three separate vulnerabilities in an attack that took six weeks to write. And Microsoft was able to announce, with some relief, that the final release of Internet Explorer 9 would have been able to withstand that attack. No one at CanSecWest wanted to take a run at either Chrome or Firefox, so they remain untested

Most of the other security improvements are under the hood and hard to quantify. The one that isn’t is the built-in protection against one of the most common forms of exploits. I see notifications at least once a day that Internet Explorer 9 has modified a site to prevent a possible cross-site scripting attack, which is reassuring.

As for privacy, I’ve already written at some length about how the new Tracking Protection feature in IE 9 works, and the initial crop of third-party Tracking Protection Lists haven’t changed since I looked at them last month. So far, these features qualify as a good start, but they’ll need significant third-party support—and maybe some legislative help—to get any serious traction.

Compatibility

The biggest weak spot for Internet Explorer 9 is compatibility. Ironically, it’s not a flaw with the rendering engine that causes most problems. Instead, the cause is legacy code on sites that target a specific Internet Explorer version and haven’t accounted for the possibility that Microsoft would one day ship a browser that doesn’t need a page full of hacks to display properly.

I’ve spent hours studying the different signals that websites and Internet Explorer can exchange with one another, and I came away with a splitting headache. More importantly, even after reading that I’ve found multiple sites that simply won’t display quite right in IE 9. On one page hosted at blogspot.com, the only way to get text to wrap properly was to press F12 and use the Developer Tools to send a different User-Agent string to the site.

One particularly interesting example of a tricky compatibility problem manifests itself on this amazing New York Times page that positions a slider in the middle of two side-by-side satellite images of cities in Japan that suffered heavy damage in the recent earthquake and tsunami. As you drag the slider, you can see the difference between the “before” and “after” images. The slider works perfectly in Google Chrome and Firefox 4 RC. But in IE 9, the images don’t change until you release the slider button, which ruins the fluid effect.

To make the slider work properly, you have to click the Compatibility View button in IE 9. Ironically, an inspection of the markup under that page reveals that it already includes a pinned_site.js file that targets IE 9, and the site is on Microsoft’s official Compatibility View list. Anyone who visits this page with IE 9 will be disappointed and might not realize that the page isn’t working correctly.

Over time, web developers will adapt, and many of these compatibility problems will vanish. The good news is that Microsoft is genuinely in this for the long haul.

Topics: Browser, Google, Microsoft

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  • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

    The biggest thing Microsoft has to fight is itself with the upgrade, simply because of all the legacy code that exists for all the previous IE versions on websites out there.

    Otherwise, it's a fantastic improvement of a version, and I'm looking forward to seeing what IE 10 will have, because I'd imagine Microsoft is beginning work on that.
    clindhartsen
    • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

      @clindhartsen
      As a major Firefox fan, I find myself a little bit shocked that I am now an evangelist for the *second* best browser out there -- and that the crown wasn't taken by Google. I really expected Chrome to be the first to pass Firefox in speed, polish and usability, but alas, it was IE! Crazy...

      The bottom line is, however, that there is *very* little daylight between these browsers at this point. Any fair-minded person would have to conclude that all three are very, very nice pieces of software. I haven't spent any real time in Opera, but I'm told there is even a fourth, excellent choice out there, too.

      One thing I don't like is the move toward maximizing the browsing space at the expense of nice large buttons across the top. I don't need those extra few pixels, and prefer bigger, more obvious buttons. If I need a lot of real-estate, I just push F11. I blame Google for making their butt-ugly user interface "standard" on other browsers. I'm sure there'll be themes for Firefox 4 that make it look like 3.
      x I'm tc
      • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

        @jdakula You "blame Google" for "making their butt-ugly user interface standard on other browsers"?

        How, exactly, did Google force other browsers to copy it? Google did something a little different and, in this free market, they - of their own volition - decided to emulate it.

        How is that Google's fault, except for making something worth copying?

        I suppose next you'll blame Apple for "making" their touch interface standard on other phones and tablets, too?
        Non-techie Talk
      • It's not that simple

        @jdakula
        Having made a website which scales itself to your screensize in multiple directions. I can tell you that different browsers do render at different speeds. There are settings deliverable by websites that speed up that rendering and slow it down in the case of IE 6-8 for sure. Fonts and images are rendered atleast before IE9 to a higher quality in firefox and fonts especially in chrome/safari. I was going to add an instruction to my site to make it look better on IE but it was far too slow when I did.

        Security is my number one concern for a web browser and I leave javascript off most of the time which is why it is annoying when people say chrome is soo fast. It's slower at rendering than firefox.

        p.s.
        IE is banished from my networks as it spends most of it's life unpatched!! (except for testing machines and occasionally if the update system breaks.)
        kevlar700
      • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

        @jdakula

        I think firefox still has a much better development environment, opportunity for customization, and this simple comfort that when I tinker with a website I am much better able to predict the outcome. IE 9 is a huge improvement over all IE that came before, but it's still a second string browser.
        tkejlboom
      • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

        I started using Opera's in the later half of 1990's. In my opinion it has always been the best. It has always been the fastest to download, install, and use. Opera back then was the only browser with tabs that could zoom in or out by simply hitting the + or - keys. Then it was only 4mb download compared to IE 11mb download. It has always been a leader in browser innovations and security. Opera also is the same on Linux as MS Windows computers. My Moto Q smart phone came with Opera and I will be using it on a Motorola Atrix 4G when I get it next month. Opera has much more to offer small button or large just find a skin you like or make your own. many other features you most likely have not heard of. It's only problem is that legacy code on some popular sites not only target a specific Internet Explorer version they also exclude Opera and other open source software.

        I like to see Ed Bott through Opera into the mix and see his opinion.
        rhogaboom
      • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

        @jdakula With Firefox 4 you just choose: Firefox-menu, preferences -> show menu bar. And it's pretty close to having Firefox 3.x interface again.
        silentlennie
      • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

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      • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

        Alain, thanks for your detailed report. I think you have done the right thing: <a href="http://www.dissertationindia.com/spss_help.html">SPSS Help</a>Secure Internet Explorer 9 to protect the operating system.
        Amanda123456
    • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

      @clindhartsen I'd like to see IE 64 run simple plugins, like silverlight. I'm tired of switching back to IE32 all the time.
      LarsDennert
      • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

        @LarsDennert My advice is to simply use IE9 32 bit for everything, there's zero reason to use 64 bit.
        CobraA1
      • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

        @LarsDennert : wow... so IE9 64 is iOS compatible. What a move forward. LOL!!!

        As for uses for 64-bit, let count all embedded applications (Outlook, MS Help, WinForms, etc etc.) which are going to suffer Microsoft decision to "nograde" IE9.
        cosuna
      • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

        @LarsDennert

        "As for uses for 64-bit, let count all embedded applications (Outlook, MS Help, WinForms, etc etc.) which are going to suffer Microsoft decision to 'nograde' IE9."

        They're designed around earlier versions of IE, which are even slower then IE9 64 bit, so this isn't really an issue.

        And they're not particularly script heavy anyways. They're not big web apps.
        CobraA1
    • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

      @clindhartsen
      9 is just released today and you are looking to 10? Why don't you stop being a chump and look forward to version 15 or even version 20.
      skytop1
      • That's the way the tech-world works...

        @skytop1 ... the instant something's on the market, there's already a new version coming! Did that thought even occur to you, or was the temptation to make a "joke" about how someone else chooses to think just too great to pass up? How about you stop being the chump you accuse clindhartsen of and put your brain in gear for something useful rather than trying to trash on somebody for being interested in what's coming!
        EnKrptyed
    • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

      @clindhartsen just wondering why opera's not in the list, i've done a sunspider benchmark with opera (Current Version) against Chrome (Developer Version with HW-Acceleration). The Results were really impressive: Opera was EVERYWHERE faster then Chrome, most of the time 2x on other tests it was 3-4 times faster then chrome. So i really stick with Opera, at least on my slower netbook.
      Denkmaschinen
    • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

      @clindhartsen
      My PC suffered a BSOD after installing IE9. I am running Win7-32Bit. Uninstalling it did not help. Others are having similar problems and some have mentioned doing a System Restore... that's my next step.
      lyauk@...
    • It appears Old Microsoft is the biggest threat for New Microsoft...

      @clindhartsen : the theme goes on and on, in an apparent loop.

      "Companies holding off upgrades to Windows 7 strangled by internal IE6-only sites".

      "Windows Mobile market share slipping due to switch by users to Android, Windows Phone 7 not an option due to lack of compatibility"

      "Companies abandon Visual Basic in favor of Java due to no clear upgrade path from Visual Basic 6 to Visual Basic.NET"

      "Windows 8: riskiest Windows release. Steve Ballmer. Analysts say reason might be compatibility of SoC implementations with old software".

      "IE9 64-bit slower than 32-bit. Development team attributes problem to focus on 32-bit to allow compatibility with current 32-bit add-ons"

      I guess they should now focus on IE9 64-bit and change the name to something like Internet Expedition, Internet Excursion or even Internet Trek, so companies know that it breaks from the past now and forever.
      cosuna
    • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

      enjoy it :)
      www.awwgame.com
      carolineueths
    • RE: Internet Explorer 9 is released: should you switch?

      The Tracking Protection feature now covers ActiveX controls???the most popular of which is Adobe Flash. In the final version of Internet Explorer 9, requests from ActiveX controls go through the same Tracking Protection Lists that govern websites. <a href="http://hair-school-us.com">hair school</a>
      user202